Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Lowell Mason (1792-1872)

Mason's contribution to hymnody was in the writing of music to existing texts, which was the prevailing way things were done in church music until the 20th century. His musical settings in Praise for the Lord include many that are still widely sung well over a century later:

  • BOYLSTON ("A charge to keep I have"-#3 & "Hungry and faint and poor"-#258)

  • CHRISTMAS ("Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve"-#62; arranged from Handel)

  • DENNIS ("Blest be the tie that binds"-#76; arr. from Nägeli)

  • NAOMI ("Father, whate'er of earthly bliss"-#148; arr. from Nägeli)

  • MISSIONARY HYMN ("From Greenland's icy mountains"-#161)

  • WESLEY ("Hail to the brightness"-#174)

  • ERNAN ("Go, labor on"-#176)

  • GERAR ("God is the fountain whence"-#184)

  • MENDEBRAS ("Hail to the Lord's anointed"-#201; arr. from German folk tune)

  • BEALOTH ("I love Thy kingdom, Lord"-#290)

  • AZMON ("I'm not ashamed to own my Lord"-#298, "O for a faith that will not shrink"-#462, "O for a thousand tongues to sing-#468; arr. from Gläser)

  • HEBRON ("Jesus, and shall it ever be"-#339)

  • ANTIOCH ("Joy to the world"-#376)

  • HENDON ("Lord, we come before Thee now"-#419; arr. from Malan)

  • OLIVET ("My faith looks up to Thee"-#442)

  • LABAN ("My soul, be on thy guard"-#443)

  • BETHANY ("Nearer, my God, to Thee"-#450)

  • PEREZ ("Praise the Lord, ye heavens adore Him"-#531)

  • LISCHER ("Rejoice, the Lord is King"-#548; arr. from Schneider)

  • WATCHMAN ("Watchman, tell us of the night"-#704)

  • ZERAH ("To us a Child of hope is born-#710)

  • SCHUMANN ("We give Thee but Thine own"-#724; arr. from Schumann?)

  • HAMBURG ("When I survey the wondrous cross"-#742; arr. from Gregorian chant?)

  • WORK SONG ("Work, for the night is coming"-#789)

At least a dozen of these are alive and well in the collective memory--not a bad record. It is obvious from the list above that Mason wrote good, serviceable music that is technically proficient (it would pass muster in my music theory class) and singable. It is also apparent that Mason had a predilection for arranging tunes from music by obscure German composers, or from obscure music (sometimes of unconfirmed attribution) by well-known German composers.

To understand these tendencies, and the impact of Lowell Mason on American church music, we need to look at the musical culture of the United States in the early 1800s when Mason came of age. Mason was a product of the urbane East coast(Savannah, later Boston), where the growing cities badly wanted to shake off the nation's backward, colonial image though the promotion of education, literacy, and the arts. This led to a rejection of home-grown American music in favor of anything European, particularly the music of the German composers.

In 1815, the cultural mavens of Boston founded the Handel & Haydn Society to promote good taste in music in their city. (It is telling that, in a year when Beethoven and Schubert were kicking off the Romantic era in music, the Bostonians were venerating two composers who were respectively a generation and two generations past. Their version of "great music" was inherently conservative, a trend still felt in American culture.) Mason entered the picture as editor of the Handel & Haydn Society Collection of Church Music in 1822. The success of this publication launched Mason as a church musician, and he worked the rest of his career to promote "better" church music along the lines of a conservative Anglo-German choral tradition. (He also contributed significantly to the introduction of music studies in the schools, and is sometimes called the "father of American music education".)

In the broad spectrum of hymn-music composers, Mason gets mixed reviews. His style is good but sometimes bland, having neither the inspiration of a truly great classical composer such as J.S. Bach ("O Sacred head now wounded", PFTL #484) nor the energy of the home-grown American traditions he deplored (see "Lo, what a glorious sight appears", PFTL #403). On the other hand, most of his music is eminently singable by an average congregation, more so than either of the examples just cited. Whether we agree with his attitudes toward church music or not, we have much for which to thank him!

A note on tune names: Tune names are necessary in discussing hymnody because of the long-time practice of mixing and matching tunes and texts that have the same number of notes/syllables per line, which led to using one tune for more than one text, and singing one text to more than one tune. (Americans are sometimes surprised to learn that their British brethren sing "When I survey the wondrous cross" to a different tune, "ROCKINGHAM", which we sing for "'Twas on that night", PFTL #691. Click here to hear a MIDI file of the tune.) Sometimes the tune name was given by the composer, sometimes by someone later; because of the latter, there are occasionally different tune names assigned to the same music in different hymnals. There is a significant tradition of using place names, which in Lowell Mason's case were often taken from the Old Testament.

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